It's all about the planning and (good quality) data

Dr María Díez-Leon is a Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare at the Royal Veterinary College in London. As part of the project's ex-situ advisory group, María plays an important part in the partnership's evidence-based approach to wildcat conservation. Here, she explains her role.

Ensuring wildcats develop the behavioural skills needed to survive in the wild is at the core of the efforts of the animal management team at Saving Wildcats. To achieve this, providing a physical and social environment that is as natural as possible from birth until they are released is essential. However, when resources are limited, trade-offs need to be made. What degree of environmental complexity is 'good enough'? Which way of separating litters at the project’s conservation breeding for release centre can best mimic natural dispersal? How do we know wildcats are behaving the way they should? And how can we adapt management to ensure this happens?

To answer these and other questions, the team is supported by a group of expert advisors and importantly, collects data to measure wildcat behaviour and evidence their approach. The team's CCTV monitoring system provides them with lots and lots of data... but when to stop? How can we make sure we have enough data, both in quantity and quality? For behavioural data, this means not only recording behaviour in a systematic way but also using objective, unambiguous definitions for what we observe, and checking all people recording wildcat behaviour are on the same page (if what you call 'play' I call 'climbing', we're in trouble!).

As an advisor to the team, my role is two-fold. On the one hand, I provide expertise on best practice and current evidence on environmental and husbandry features most likely to lead to optimal behavioural development. In addition, I collaborate with the team and help guide the data monitoring approach whilst serving as a sounding board for some of the difficult trade-offs that need to be made. For example, I help to decide how existing resources can be maximised to confidently answer the questions the team needs to ask, such as ‘can wildcats source food independently?’, before releasing these wildcats, while ensuring that we follow replicable and robust methods. My role includes helping the team create ethograms (a list of species-specific behaviours, categorised into a table format) of clearly defined behaviours the wildcats might show. These definitions also need to avoid ambiguity. For example, how do we distinguish 'play' behaviour from hunting behaviour in practice? I also help to, design behavioural recording schedules (is it better to record all behaviours that the wildcats are doing for a whole hour, or record for a few seconds each hour during several days?) as well as protocols and databases that yield robust data while taking into account the busy lives of wildcat keepers and the volunteers that need to observe and record what the wildcats are doing.

The animal management team do an incredible job of breeding and preparing these wildcats for a life in the wild and it is a privilege to be a part of this journey. With such a dedicated team and their impressive collective wealth of experience on close observation of wildcat behaviour, I very much enjoy taking part on discussions around selecting the enclosure features that give wildcats the best possible developmental opportunities, or diving into the nitty gritty of data collection and analysis, as well as of course seeing the wildcats in action! The team is already seeing interesting things and are now in the middle of recording how different wildcats react differently to their environment (yes, wildcat personality!).

Ultimately, evidence-based decision making is at the centre of Saving Wildcats as it informs management, allows us to share lessons learned, and impacts wildcat welfare and release success. Will all those hours that Randal spent playing with his sister predict his mating success in the wild? Will the alertness that Haggis showed in the pre-release enclosures predict the type of environment she settles in once released? And are there any features of the pre-release enclosures or husbandry that affected how the wildcats adapted to the wild? While we cannot answer all these questions right now, we hope that by collecting all these data we may be able to provide answers as the project progresses!

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